The original Monster Rancher came out at a time when it was perfectly primed to take advantage of the burgeoning popularity of Pokemon. Since 1997, the series has amassed a sizable following with multiple sequels spanning the PlayStation, PS2, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. With the exception of Monster Rancher Battle Cards: Episode II, every game in the franchise has proven to be genuinely entertaining pocket monster-esque diversions. Monster Rancher 4 for the PS2 is no exception. While retaining the ever-popular method of generating different types of monsters using random CDs and DVDs, MR4 gets back to the roots of the series and keeps the proceedings straightforward and fun. Fans of the Monster Rancher games and newcomers alike should find the fourth game to be an enjoyable experience, though it is a bit simplistic.
Monster Rancher 4 can be best defined as a bare bones RPG that includes unique aspects such as raising and maintaining your own personal monster, and pitting your creation against other monsters. It’s easy to draw similarities between this game and Pokemon, obviously, but the series has gradually evolved over the years and the end result is something very different. While Monster Rancher 4 gets rid of a lot of the newly introduced features of Monster Rancher 3, it still manages to do something that no other MR game has done yet; tell a cohesive story via a welcomed adventure mode. Of course you can still create your monster, buff him up and enter it into various tournaments and competitions, but now you can also navigate dungeons and progress through a moderately interesting story, too.
At the beginning of your adventure, you are given a monster and a small ranch on which to raise it. After minimal progression, you are given the option to create additional monsters. There are a host of different pre-customized monsters that you can select from the game’s monster encyclopedia, but it’s far more satisfying to create monsters by inserting a CD or DVD into your PS2 and having one randomly generated based off the data of the inserted optical media; although those who opt for the latter method of monster creation may have to go through some serious trial-and-error before generating an adequately powerful monster.
Aside from the monster creation aspect, the game is almost exclusively all about the fighting. Being able to submit your unique monster in various tournaments and watch as it fights its way through the ranks is actually a surprisingly rewarding experience. The more your monster wins the faster it will graduate to more challenging classes that offer substantially larger payouts. This is a pretty straightforward method of progression on paper, but in practice you’ll find that climbing the monster fighting ladder requires more than just an unquenchable thirst for cartoony fiend blood.
Six different attributes determine the monster’s overall capabilities: power, accuracy, life, intelligence, defense, and speed. Training is of utmost importance to keeping your monster in tiptop shape. Neglecting your monster’s training is a good way to ensure that its trophy rack remains bare. The more your monster trains the more adept it will become in whatever attribute the training regime focuses on. Training gadgets can be purchased from a traveling salesman who comes along every now and again, and these gadgets substantially increase the productivity of the training sessions. You can buy training gadgets for each of your monster’s attributes, but you’ll have to choose carefully at first because you won’t initially have enough room on your ranch to facilitate every gadget.
After you’ve sufficiently trained your monster, you can enter it into tournaments with confidence. Once combat has begun, you’ll control your monster in real-time and execute attacks much like you would in a simplistic fighting game. There isn’t a whole lot of strategy to the combat in the beginning, as your monster will only be able to perform a few different moves, but as your monster becomes more powerful it will acquire new attacks that will give you distinct advantages in a fight. If the combat system just doesn’t sit right with you, putting your monster on auto-fight, which allows it to control itself during confrontations, is an option you might be interested in.
Many fans of the series were unexcited when the developers of Monster Rancher 3 opted for a cel-shaded graphical style. These same people may be glad to know that MR4 ditches the previous game’s overused cel-shading in exchange for a more traditional 3D style of graphics. The visuals are not all that inspiring however; noticeable pixilation, and aliasing constantly stick out like a sore thumb. The monsters, however, are well rendered, even though a lot of the body components repeat fairly frequently between different creations. Coupled with below average graphics is below average sound. The soundtrack seems like it was lifted out of a pre-80’s children’s anime, and the sound effects are generic and sparse. MR4 has a lot of room for improvement in terms of its aural presentation.
In short, fans of the Monster Rancher games should be satisfied with Monster Rancher 4 when it makes its way into their PS2s. The game lacks the necessary bells and whistles that contemporary gamers have come to expect from their digital entertainment but it’s hard not to like MR4’s simplistic, RPG style, monster fighting mechanics nonetheless.